During the late 1920s, as the world economy careened headlong toward an economic disaster that would soon befall it, a group of European thinkers and critics steeped in both German idealism and Marxist activism converged on Frankfurt, Germany to provide identity and notoriety for the recently established Institute for Social Research at the university there.
Within time, the assemblage of now famous philosophers and cultural theorists associated with the institute, such as Juergen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and Erich Fromm, came to be known as the Frankfurter Schule (“Frankfurt School”).
The school, which in actuality was the epicenter of a worldwide intellectual movement that leveraged a broad, interdisciplinary method combining the humanities with the anti-positivist social sciences and known as “critical theory”, had a slow, but powerful transformative effect on Western culture. Challenging every one of the dominant orthodoxies of its day, including fascism, Stalinist Marxism, and corporate capitalism, critical theory was both directly and indirectly responsible for the various “cultural revolutions” of the 1960s that, in turn, reshaped profoundly the current Western academic as well as socio-political landscape.
Critical theory embodied the age-old longing to combine thought with action, theory with practice. The Frankfurt School insisted that if any theory was to be deemed “critical”, it had to insinuate a normative and potentially transformative dimension into its procedural apparatus. The Frankfurt School, in effect, traced its origins back to Kant’s declaration that all critiques of knowledge must lead to the affirmation of human freedom, echoing of course Rousseau’s celebrated manifesto for the age of revolution itself: “man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”
As Max Horkheimer proclaimed, the purpose of critical theory is “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” The young Marx had demanded that philosophy must move from interpreting the world to changing it, but the Frankfurt School recognized that interpretation and change could not be easily separated from each other.
Critical theory enlarged the domain of world-transforming praxis from political economy to a penetrating critique of culture itself, encompassing everything from an exposure of hidden structures of domination perpetuated by popular ideologies to the analysis of the forms of communication and prevailing sign systems. The assumption was that effective political movements were impossible without a radical overhaul of the cognitive and moral frameworks within which every social agent operated.
The Frankfurt School became famous for its understanding of how social media both enslave and emancipate. But, with the exception of the ad hoc radical activism of students in the Sixties with certain tacit connections to its major theorists, it tended to skip over any deep-reaching critical analysis of the role of educational institutions.
Perhaps the oversight can be attributed simply to the relatively marginal role higher education in particular played in the formation of broader ideological commitments as late as the 1950s. But in the 2010s when the Western economies are totally dependent on well-educated “cognitive workers” and astronomical amounts of student loan debt, especially in the United States, threaten the sustainability of the system as a whole, a new burst of critical theory that zeroes in on the increasingly dysfunctional interplay between the production of knowledge, the global hegemonies of the new corporate elites, and the institutions of higher learning seems to be in the offing.
In the last month a grass-roots a movement to revive and energize critical theory within the context of restructuring graduate education in particular has sprung up both on the internet and in a fledgling “institutional” manner with its own ground zero in Denver, Colorado. Known as the Global Center for Advanced Studies, the movement has been gaining astounding steam, support, and enthusiasm, even though only an inaugural seminar led by two of the world’s top intellectual figures—Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek—is actually in place.
It is my understanding that the topic of seminar will be something like the “Rebirth of Critical Theory in the 21st Century.”
This “event”, as Badiou himself would term it, signifies a powerful disruption in the business-as-usual procedures within the corporate production of knowledge by the state-controlled educational apparatus. The event pushes open an horizon for something wholly unanticipated and fraught with creative possibility that for the first time generates genuine “subjects”, as Badiou says in his Logic of Worlds, who are fired with a sense of “destination,” a vision of truth.
Various internet skeptics have already proclaimed that such ventures are quixotic and doomed to failure, but in their own miniscule-minded, petty, and self-aggrandizing stupor they miss the entire point about what is happening.
L’eventement is a singularity disclosing the threshold of powerful and irresistible historical forces, like the Arab Spring now more than two years ago, that are ready to break forth and transmogrify—perhaps almost overnight—a vast terrain. It is a time of profound crisis in the Western world – economically, institutionally, culturally, and politically—for which higher education, as in the 1960s, will prove a lightning rod. The outcome cannot be tied to any one project or aspiration, just as the Arab Spring itself could not be tied to the self-immolation of a street vendor, or the Civil Rights movement simply to one brave act of resistance toward Jim Crow laws.
The crisis, out of which the event proceeds, is visible all around us. For the last three decades we have witnessed a piecemeal hollowing out of higher education. Overwhelmed with anxiety about the affordability and long-term financial viability of their own “investments” in the educational process, students increasingly enroll in degree programs that neither interest them nor even guarantee the long-term economic security that prompted them to pursue these courses of study in the first place.
How many unemployed, or underemployed, lawyers are there in the developed world nowadays? How many talented artists are out there who are told to “succeed” in the profession you have to earn an MFA, only to discover that the proliferation of such degrees means they will have to secure part-time employment teaching adjunct for a pittance at some profit-making fine arts institute, where they will continue to indoctrinate other innocent students with the same, seductive nonsense.
When did art cease to have a certain value and cachet other than what it might be worth to collectors down the road ravenous for high rates of return in the global shell game of commodities speculation driven by the constant creation of funny money on the part of central banks desperately seeking to exorcise the specter of financial meltdown, which itself is the outcome of collective social and political fantasies fed by impossible media-fomented desires?
When did such lofty “intrinsic” purposes for higher education as developing critical thinking competencies and laying the groundwork for productive lifelong learning metastasize into a so-called “paper chase”, a stampede for ever more expensive, but commensurately worthless, technical and professional diplomas that cost more than any reasonable salary that someone who succeeds in running the pricey gauntlet of curricular completion, certification, and licensing can hope to pay for as more and more of the best-educated join the planetary proleteriat of the debt-ridden, the intellectually displaced, and the undercompensated?
Those who courageously try to resist these trends frequently fall victim to an even worse fate by going the route of seeking advanced degrees in the liberal arts, which they hope to “teach” one day in a university setting, but from which they are in reality barred by oversupply of trained academics and the undersupply of actual paying positions, as a consequence of the same dismal factors and circumstances.
The economies of higher education have become largely dysfunctional. The system itself is broken and is only held together by a certain hopelessness and apprehension, especially throughout the emerging generation. With its once grand ambition of educating its people to become productive free citizens of a democracy the Western world has ironically through higher education turned them into wage and debt slaves to a regime of global finance run by and for the benefit of their new masters.
Amid this crisis the phoenix of a renewed critical theory with a truly global range finder is arising.
As Kwame Nkrumah, the African hero of decolonial movements put it, “revolutions are brought about by men, by men who think as men of action and act as men of thought.” That is the most apt summation of what critical theory, both in its historical genesis and as avatar for the philosophy of the future, amounts to.
It was Francis Bacon who enunciated the watchword of the modern age with the phrase “knowledge is power.” But in the new millennium the kind of knowledge we have is no longer emancipatory, and therefore remains powerless.
That is about to change.